You know it when you’re stressed. You just don’t feel like your best self. Stress is not what’s going on in your life but how you respond to it, consciously or unconsciously. That’s why we also call it the stress response.

Hans Selye, a physician and professor at McGill University, who was born in Vienna in 1907, is recognized as the father of stress theory, but it was probably Brooklyn-born Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, who put stress on the map with the publication of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers in 1974.

The stress response is a natural physiological reaction to our daily experiences, both real and imagined. It is an evolutionary adaptation that has ensured the survival of our species. All other living creatures in the animal and plant kingdoms also respond and adapt to stressors. You’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response that literally gives you a leg up when your life or limb is threatened by a modern-day “lion.” Your brain orchestrates a complex soundscape of interactive neurological and hormonal melodies that prioritize survival functions, such as visual acuity, heart contractility, strength in your skeletal muscles, and blood supply to your brain, over the more mundane and ongoing activities in your body like digestion, tissue repair, and reproduction.

All would be fine and dandy if we could just get off this fire engine as soon as the danger has passed and return to our relaxed, unworried state of being. In our modern lifestyle, though, people are more likely to experience an ongoing state of stress and to find it harder and harder to relax. We all know that feeling stressed often or all the time can make you tired, sick and unhappy. But how?

A closer look at the stress response

Let’s take a look at what goes on when we respond to stress: Our senses, especially our vision and hearing, observe what’s going on around us and transmit the information to our amygdala, an area in the brain that processes emotions, including fear. If the amygdala senses danger, it sends an urgent signal to the hypothalamus, another nearby area in the brain, where our stress response is activated over two pathways, the nervous system and the endocrine (hormone) system. It activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, while suppressing the activities regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It directs the endocrine system via the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) to produce the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine, etc. and to distribute these through the blood stream to tissues in the entire body. Hormones are messenger molecules that affect changes in cellular function and communication.

Especially cortisol has profound effects on cellular metabolism and the function of other endocrine glands like the thyroid. If cortisol levels are elevated over long periods of time, the cells in the body will become tired of listening to it. Eventually, the adrenal glands will even become tired of producing it. This phenomenon is colloquially referred to as adrenal fatigue. Excessive or continuous stress even leads to changes inside your brain where some areas atrophy, such as the hippocampus involved in memory formation and recall.

Unmitigated stress impacts your health

Stress has piqued the interest of researchers and healthcare providers for decades. We know now that unmitigated stress contributes to a wide range of health dysfunctions and chronic diseases. Mental illness, premature aging, heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal distress, autoimmunity, and cancer are some of the more serious conditions associated with stress, but even many low-level imbalances can be caused by an overactive stress response. Weight gain, insomnia, anxiety and depression, hormonal dysregulation, and even infertility have been shown through research to often have a connection to stress. Last but not least, many people who admit to feeling stressed out will also note that they’re unable to experience joy and happiness.

If any of this resonates with you, I bet you would like to know a few strategies to relieve stress and boost your resilience to stress. So, let me describe several different strategies that people find useful, most of which have been shown in research studies large or small to improve people’s wellbeing, as seen in both self-reporting of symptoms and markers of stress such as blood labs or health outcomes.

Strategies to harness your stress response

I’ll divide the strategies into two categories, one group includes techniques you yourself can learn to do, the other group involves therapies that are given to you. Pick and choose one or several strategies that appeal to you.

Things you can do

Your brain has areas that function at an emotional level and others that function at a rational level, especially in the prefrontal cortex. You can use the rational abilities of your brain to quickly gain perspective on information you experience as stressful by performing what’s called cognitive appraisal. This allows you to choose an appropriate reaction and response to a stressful situation. The result is that you don’t let your physiological stress response run away with you but feel like you’re in the driver’s seat. People who feel in control in stressful situations experience less stress.

Other similar strategies involve shifting your focus to another mental activity, looking at the positive aspects of a situation, and practicing mindfulness meditation, which over time will allow you to direct your thoughts and emotions with greater ease.

Moderate exercise like walking or jogging, swimming, biking, yoga and tai chi has been shown in studies to allow people to become more stress resilient. You can also do breathing exercises, dance or listen to relaxing music. Spending time in nature is especially restorative. (Even just looking at pictures or listening to sounds of nature!)
Another piece of the puzzle is your circadian rhythm. This involves when you exercise, eat, and sleep. Look at your sleep habits and how rested and energetic you feel during you day. There are many tweaks you can make to improve the quality of your sleep and restore your natural cycle of rest and wakefulness.

Getting help to improve your stress response

As a doctor of natural medicine I have many tips and tools in my toolbox to help you tame your stress response. I use acupuncture and bodywork with great success to relieve stress. Other strategies involve botanicals that can relax and tonify your nervous system or boost your resilience to stress, such as adaptogens. An unregulated stress response can also result in excessive inflammation throughout your body, disruption of your digestive system, and an inability to conceive. This reaction can have long-term consequences for your health and requires a thorough and comprehensive strategy to heal your digestion, reduce inflammation, and restore good functioning to your whole body, including your brain. Together, we will also look at nutrition, detoxification, and supplementation, possibly even at stealth pathogens that are lodged inside of you.

Aligning your values and practices

Lastly, to harness your stress response for a long, healthy life, you need to think about how well your beliefs and life goals are aligned, how strongly you believe in and care for yourself, and how connected you are in your community. Feeling grounded and optimistic about your place in the world promotes compassion towards yourself and others, probably the ultimate stress buster.

© 2024 Christiane Siebert